Mimicking Nature's Fire: Restoring Fire-Prone Forests in the West

Overview

The magnificent stands of old-growth trees that characterize the forests of western North America depend on periodic fires for their creation or survival. Deprived of that essential disturbance process eventually they die, leaving an overcrowded growth of smaller trees vulnerable to intense blazes and epidemics of insects and disease.

In Mimicking Nature's Fire, forest ecologists Stephen Arno and Carl Fiedler present practical solutions to the pervasive problem of deteriorating ...

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Mimicking Nature's Fire: Restoring Fire-Prone Forests In The West

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Overview

The magnificent stands of old-growth trees that characterize the forests of western North America depend on periodic fires for their creation or survival. Deprived of that essential disturbance process eventually they die, leaving an overcrowded growth of smaller trees vulnerable to intense blazes and epidemics of insects and disease.

In Mimicking Nature's Fire, forest ecologists Stephen Arno and Carl Fiedler present practical solutions to the pervasive problem of deteriorating forest conditions in western North America. Advocating a new direction in forest management, they explore the promise of "restoration forestry" — an ecologically based approach that seeks to establish forest structures in which fire can once again serve as a beneficial process rather than as a destructive aberration.

The book begins with an overview of fundamentals: why traditional forestry tried to exclude fire from forests, why that attempt failed, and why foresters and ecologists now recognize the need for management based on how natural ecosystems operate. Subsequent chapters consider: how fire's historic role provides a foundation for designing restoration strategies; why a hands-off approach will not return forests to their historical condition; how management goals influence the strategies used in restoration forestry.

The second part of the book presents case studies of restoration projects in the western United States and Canada, representing different forest types, different historic fire regimes, and contrasting management goals. For each project, the authors describe why and how the project is being conducted, profile forest conditions, and describe methods of treatment. They also report what has been accomplished, identify obstacles to restoration, and offer their candid but understanding evaluation. Mimicking Nature's Fire concludes by placing restoration forestry in the broad context of conserving forests worldwide and outlining factors critical for its success.

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Editorial Reviews

forest ecologist, Ecological Restoration Institute and School of Forestry, North - Peter Fulé
"Drawing on the extensive experience of the authors and detailed examples from across the varied forest types of western North America, Arno and Fiedler show how to design and implement a range of forest restoration actions.... Rich detail, historical depth, and straightforward writing make this book valuable to foresters, ecologists, landowners, wildland fire managers, and anyone involved in western forest restoration."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559631433
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen F. Arno, now retired, was research forester with the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. He is co-author of Flames in Our Forest (Island Press, 2002), and has been restoring his family's uneven-aged ponderosa pine forest for more than 30 years.

Carl E. Fiedler is research professor at the University of Montana. He teaches silviculture, conducts research on uneven-aged management, and presents short courses on silviculture, fire, and restoration forestry throughout the West.

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Read an Excerpt

Mimicking Nature's Fire

Restoring Fire-Prone Forests in the West


By Stephen F. Arno, Carl E. Fiedler

ISLAND PRESS

Copyright © 2005 Stephen F. Arno and Carl E. Fiedler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55963-143-3



CHAPTER 1

Introduction

Successive, widely publicized wildfires have swept through forests of western North America, beginning in 1987 in California and Oregon and 1988 in Yellowstone National Park and the Northern Rockies. During most fire seasons since, hundreds of forest homes and cabins have gone up in flames, from the mountain suburbs of Los Angeles to Kelowna, British Columbia. By now anyone interested in western forests is aware that our management and protection policies have failed to account for the historical role of fire, leaving a legacy of dense forests with sickly trees and hazardous fuels.

Since about 1990, newspapers, magazines, television news, and Congressional hearings have warned of ecological deterioration and increasing wildfire hazard in western forests. The now familiar story is that suppression of fires for nearly a century and logging of fire-resistant old growth trees spawned an overcrowded growth of smaller trees vulnerable to intense blazes and epidemics of insects and disease. Today's dense forests also lack diverse and productive grass and shrub communities needed by wildlife. Each year we channel more money, personnel, and technology into fire suppression, but uncontrollable wildfires continue to threaten forests and the homes and recreation areas within them. Despite recognizing the impending peril facing broad expanses of western forests, we remain polarized and indecisive about what to do.

After decades of studying western forests, the authors recognized that the magnificent old-growth trees that survived and depended on periodic fires disappear when deprived of this essential disturbance process. When forests of these venerable trees are managed using traditional timber harvesting methods, the features that made them famous ultimately disappear. When these forests are protected in "natural areas" that fail to restore the historical role of fire—as in the majority of parks, wilderness, and primitive areas—the big old fire-resistant trees gradually die and are replaced by thickets of small trees. Our experience revealed that long-lived trees and other important features of fire-prone forests can be restored through management that mimics the effects of historical fires. Although research studies and practical examples indicate how to restore forests and reduce potential damage from wildfires, insects, and disease, they get little play in the media. However, it is these topics—scientific findings and real-world management examples—that we bring together in this book.

This book advocates changing direction in the management of western forests and adopting an approach we call "restoration forestry" that is based on historical natural processes. Restoration forestry does not have a well-established definition. We use it to designate the practice of reinstituting an approximation of historical structure and ecological processes to tree communities that were in the past shaped by distinctive patterns of fire. The intent is not to re-create a single, distinct "historical condition" but rather a range of conditions representative of historical ecosystems (Fiedler 2000a). This is a narrower, more immediate, and more attainable goal than restoration of the entire forest ecosystem, known as "ecological restoration," and defined as "the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed" (Society for Ecological Restoration International: www.ser.org).

Restoration of the forest tree community (the goal of restoration forestry) triggers desired changes in the vigor and composition of undergrowth plants, large and small mammal populations, avian communities, and microfauna as well as soil, hydrologic, and biochemical processes. Thus, restoration of tree communities is the key process that initiates and facilitates the broader goal of ecological restoration. Few forest types have been studied thoroughly enough to attempt ecological restoration. One exception is the southwestern ponderosa pine forest (Friederici 2003a).

How much restoration forestry is needed? When people learn that more than one hundred million acres of fire-prone western forests harbor deteriorating conditions outside the historical range of variability, they are struck by the staggering extent of this problem. Given the difficulties of applying restoration, some may judge the situation hopeless. However, our experience suggests that any strategically located restoration treatments can produce noticeable benefits in reducing wildfire hazard to homes and communities and return important features of historical forests. In some areas, restoration forestry relies on returning natural fires. In others it requires cutting treatments to produce a more natural forest structure before using prescribed fire. In heavily populated areas it may rely on strategic removal of certain trees and forest fuels. In natural areas initial cultural treatments may eventually be replaced by fire. This book explains the options and considerations involved in planning restoration forestry across a range of geographical settings and ownerships. For students and others interested in more detailed information, the book cites publications that elaborate on specific topics.


How the Book Is Organized

In Part I, chapters 2–5, we examine the "nuts and bolts" underlying restoration forestry as applied to fire-dependent forests: why it is needed, how it developed, and how it is applied.

In Part II (chapters 6–15) we look "under the hood" to understand restoration projects in different forest types representing each historic fire regime and under contrasting management goals. We study notable restoration projects from Arizona to Alberta and California to Colorado. Some projects are designed to protect homes and developments. Others return natural processes to wilderness areas, enhance habitat in privately owned conservation reserves, or promote sustainability in timber-producing forests. These examples of restoration forestry represent a spectrum of vegetation types, from aspen and pinyon-juniper through the heart of the conifer forest to high-elevation whitebark pine communities.

Our examples demonstrate how diverse landowners and forest stewards designed and carried out treatments to return features and processes of historically sustainable forests, despite limited funding, smoke regulations, and many other constraints. We evaluate how well these projects have achieved restoration goals and interpret how they might be improved. The majority of these projects focus on stand-level restoration, but in chapter 14 we examine strategic restoration efforts in a large timber-producing forest, and in chapter 15 we profile a project aimed at restoring a vast wilderness landscape.

Part III concludes the book (chapter 16) by placing restoration forestry in a broad perspective and specifying factors critical for its success. We summarize how restoration forestry uses knowledge of historical natural processes as the basis for managing for different landowner goals. Restoration forestry provides for ecological sustainability of the forest and the resources and amenity values important to humans. It also allows highly developed countries to sustainably manage natural forests rather than exploiting them or those of less developed countries.

CHAPTER 2

Ecology's Role in Forest Management

In 1857 Lt. Edward Beale journeyed across the high northern plateaus of what would later become the Arizona Territory with a band of camels that he dreamed would revolutionize transportation in the Southwest. He described the vast ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest in glowing terms: "We came to a glorious forest of lofty pines, through which we traveled ten miles. [The ground was] covered with the finest grass.... The forest was perfectly open and unencumbered with brushwood" (Cooper 1960, p. 130). Similarly, pioneer journals from the 1850s described the Oregon Trail in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon as climbing through open groves of magnificent ponderosa pines. Pioneers extolled the lush grass beneath the trees, and almost every late summer they witnessed fires burning through the country with little effect on the trees (Evans 1990). Today dense forests and thickets of small trees blanket these landscapes, grass is sparse, and big trees are few.


Why Traditional Forestry Failed

Why didn't the methods used in traditional forestry prevent deterioration of western forests? Forestry, which predated the science of ecology, failed from the beginning to recognize the ecological importance of fire. Concepts of forestry were developed in moist regions of Europe for the purpose of reestablishing trees on land deforested centuries earlier (Arno and Allison-Bunnell 2002). Early European foresters considered fire entirely a destructive force introduced by humans. We now know that most North American forests as well as ancient forests in Europe were shaped over thousands of years by distinctive patterns of fire (Pyne 1997).

When European-American settlements were expanding across North America in the 19th century, countless fires threatened everything from mining camps to major communities (Pyne 1982). Many fires were started accidentally by railroads, campfires, or settlers clearing land. Although a few visionaries recommended controlled burning of forests during a relatively safe season to reduce fire threats, forestry leaders, conservationists, and many landowners thought that fire should be suppressed and largely eliminated. In 1908 the U.S. For–est Service developed a primary mission funded by Congress to suppress forest fires; it also tried to prevent any use of fire as a tool to maintain forests. Over the next several decades the Forest Service led a multiagency, paramilitary-type program to eliminate forest fires.

Beginning in the 1950s clear-cut harvesting, which removes all trees from a sizeable area, was commonly applied to forests historically dominated by the mixed and stand replacement fire regimes (Clary 1986). Following harvest, the ground was usually prepared for regeneration of a new forest by scraping with bulldozers or prescribed burning. Dozer scraping displaces the productive upper soil layer, leaving a surface highly susceptible to invasion by introduced weeds. Burned clear-cuts bear some resemblance to forests in the stand replacement fire regime, except that the latter have an abundance of standing dead trees (snags). Snags cast beneficial shade and provide habitat for a variety of birds and small mammals that nest in cavities made by woodpeckers.

By the 1960s, rapidly expanding knowledge in the young science of ecology revealed that fire plays an essential role in natural forests. During the 1970s natural resource agencies changed course in response to this new knowledge and to escalating costs of fire suppression and recognized that fire should be used in forest management (Nelson 1979). However, by this time a variety of barriers had developed. An influential "fire suppression industry" had built up to serve the lucrative firefighting effort by providing personnel and equipment of all sorts, and it depended on continuation of the fire exclusion policy (Arno and Allison-Bunnell 2002).

Over the decades, money and other incentives were geared to putting fires out, not to using and managing fire. The public, nurtured on Smokey Bear messages, had also been convinced that all fire in the forest was bad. A host of new laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Protection Act, had many beneficial effects, but they also spawned regulations that hindered returning a natural disturbance process like fire. New homes and developments worth billions of dollars sprang up in dense high-hazard forests, increasing the political outcry when foresters wanted to use fire. In addition, the potential liability managers face when prescribed or natural fires go awry far outweighs any rewards they might receive for using fire successfully. Governments are accustomed to spending vast amounts to suppress fires—an effort well received by the public—but resist spending smaller amounts to reduce forest fuels and subsequent fire damage. The ability to suppress unwanted fires and to control prescribed fires remains an essential tool for managing forests. Our mistake was trying to eliminate fire in western forests.

Examples from different fire regimes (presented in Part II) illustrate important differences between conventional timber management and restoration treatments that include tree removal. In forests historically subject to the understory and mixed fire regimes, traditional logging removed the large fire-resistant trees and allowed saplings to proliferate and develop into thickets. Restoration treatments leave many of the large fire-resistant trees, remove more small trees and sometimes medium and large shade-tolerant trees, and often use prescribed fire to kill some of the seedlings and saplings, mimicking effects of historical fires (Fiedler 2000a). Valuable timber remains, and on some ownerships can increase and help pay for tending the stand again in the future. In place of clear-cutting in the stand replacement fire regime, restoration forestry may prescribe "variable retention harvesting," in which patches of live trees and snags are left within irregularly shaped units (Franklin and others 1999). These areas may later be prescribe burned, with treatment effects more comparable ecologically to a natural burn.


Roots of Restoration Forestry

Perhaps the earliest example of restoration forestry in America came in the 1890s when Gifford Pinchot and a German forester named Carl Schenck were hired to restore native hardwoods on the deforested Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina. However, the concept of restoring and maintaining more natural conditions in fire-prone western forests developed slowly, in tandem with the emerging disciplines of forest ecology and fire ecology. Pioneering ecologist Frederic Clements (1910) characterized the fire ecology of high-elevation lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) forests and advocated using controlled fire in their management. In the 1920s research showed that when fire was withheld from longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forests in the Southeast, brown-spot disease fatally attacked young pines. Soon many landowners were using fire in southern pinelands to control disease, reduce fuel buildup, and enhance habitat for quail and other wildlife (Chapman 1926, Pyne 1982).

During the early 1900s—and much to the chagrin of the U.S. For–est Service—several prominent timberland owners in northern California practiced and promoted burning beneath ponderosa pine-mixed conifer forests to reduce fuels and mimic frequent fires of the presettlement era (Hoxie 1910, Kitts 1919, Pyne 1982, 2001). In the 1920s and 1930s entomologist F. P. Keen linked ecological deterioration of ponderosa pine forests in Oregon to fire exclusion. Keen's revelation inspired Harold Weaver, a young forester with the U.S. Indian Service (precursor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), to begin experimenting with fire in ponderosa pine (Weaver 1968). In 1943 Weaver penned a remarkable treatise in the Journal of Forestry championing fire as a silvicultural tool in ponderosa pine forests—virtual heresy in a period when fire exclusion was the official policy (Weaver 1943). Within a few years Harold Biswell, a forestry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who had experience with burning in the Southeast, began demonstrating the use of fire in western pine forests (Biswell 1989, Carle 2002). But the voices recognizing fire's ecological value in western forests were few and the deaf ears were many. Despite decades of dedicated individual efforts to mimic natural fire in management, those in the fire exclusion camp maintained tight control over fire policy.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Mimicking Nature's Fire by Stephen F. Arno, Carl E. Fiedler. Copyright © 2005 Stephen F. Arno and Carl E. Fiedler. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction
 
PART I. Fundamentals
Chapter 2. Ecology's Role in Forest Management
Chapter 3. Knowledge from Historical Fire Regimes
Chapter 4. Can Fire-Prone Forests Heal Themselves?
Chapter 5. Restoration Objectives, Techniques, and Economics
 
PART II. Learning from Experience: Profiles of Restoration Forestry Projects by Forest Type
Chapter 6. Pinyon-Juniper—The Elfin Forest
Chapter 7. Ponderosa Pine/Fir—Research and Demonstration Areas
Chapter 8. Ponderosa Pine/Fir—Forest Management on Public Lands
Chapter 9. Ponderosa Pine/Fir—Privately Owned Conservation Reserves
Chapter 10. Giant Sequoia/Mixed Conifer
Chapter 11. Western Larch/Fir
Chapter 12. Lodge pole Pine
Chapter 13. Whitebark Pine
Chapter 14. Restoring Aspen and Conifers across a Ranger District
Chapter 15. Restoring Fire on a Wilderness Landscape
 
PARTIII. Conclusions
Chapter 16. The Restoration Imperative
 
References
About the Authors
Index

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